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article imageDid you know ancient Egyptians had a hefty tax bill?

By Karen Graham     Mar 17, 2015 in Science
On April 15, millions of Americans will be scrambling to get their tax bills paid to the government. While most tax-payers complain that paying a large tax bill is too much, they should be glad they didn't live in ancient Egypt. They paid hefty taxes.
Taxation has long been a part of civilization, dating back to Ancient Egypt around 3000–2800 BC in the first dynasty of the Old Kingdom. A recently translated ancient Egyptian tax receipt. inscribed on a piece of pottery shows a land-transfer tax bill that was truly a hefty amount to pay. The tax would have weighed over 220 pounds.
Brice Jones, a Ph.D. student at Concordia University in Montreal, has been in the process of translating a number of ancient and medieval texts at McGill University Library and Archives in Montreal. He came across the tax receipt, written in Greek on a shard of pottery. It had a date that corresponds to July 22, 98 B.C.
The receipt states that someone (the name is unreadable) and his friends paid a land-transfer tax in the amount of 75 "Talents." A talent was a unit of currency. The receipt also shows a 15-talent surcharge had been paid. The tax was paid in coins, according to the translation, and delivered to a public bank in the city of Diospolis Magna, also known as Luxor or Thebes.
So 90-talents might not seem like such a big tax to most of us, but there's more to this story. "It's an incredibly large sum of money," said Brice Jones, "These Egyptians were most likely very wealthy." We have to remember there was no paper money at that time in world history, nor was there ant coin in existence that equaled one talent. People had to use various coins that were worth varying amounts of a drachma.
So let's do the math. One talent was worth 6,000 drachmas. This means 540,000 drachmas were needed to pay the 90-talent tax bill. Scholar Catharine Lorber, who has published a number of articles on Egyptian coins, says the average yearly wage for an unskilled Egyptian laborer was about 18,000 drachmas a year. She says the highest value of an Egyptian coin in 98 BC was probably worth about 40 drachmas, so about 13,500 of them would have been needed to pay the tax bill.
Lorber further explained that the coin in question weighed around 0.3 ounces (8 grams). So she figured the total weight of the 90 talents paid was in excess of 100 kilograms or 220 pounds. Now that's a hefty tax load, and not something anyone would be carrying around in their pockets.
Instead of calling the people charged with collecting taxes "tax collectors," they were known as "tax farmers." Tax farming was a system of collecting taxes where the state transferred the right of collection to private individuals in exchange for a certain fee. The tax farmers became very wealthy because the taxes and surcharges they collected exceeded by two or three times the actual amount they deposited in the public banks.
So the tax farmers would have used a donkey to haul the baskets of coins to the bank. The surcharge added to the tax bill is called an "allage," says Lorber. The allage was added to the bill because some of the tax was paid in bronze coins instead of silver.
"This was an exchange fee imposed on bronze currency when it was used to pay an obligation that legally should have been paid in silver," Lorber said. "This system was maintained even in periods when silver coinage was scarcely available."
After Alexander the Great's many conquests, the drachma came into use in many Hellenistic kingdoms in the Middle East, and so too in Egypt. Some historians have estimated that in 500 BC, the drachma had a rough value of $25 US Dollars. In 1990, the value of that drachma had grown to $41 US dollars. In today's world, according to historians and economists, the value of the 90 Talent tax bill would have been the equivalent of $1,670 (£1,120).
More about Taxes, hefty tax bill, Ancient egypt, egyptian tax receipt, landtransfer tax
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